James Baldwin and His House

 

American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin poses at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979. AFP PHOTO RALPH GATTI (Photo credit should read RALPH GATTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Baldwin at home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, November 6, 1979. Ralph Gatty/AFP/Getty Images)

Internationally acclaimed writer and cultural icon James Baldwin found a second home in France, and he was granted the country’s highest order of merit, the Legion d’Honneur, in 1986. And yet today, Baldwin’s sole geographic legacy, the house in St. Paul-de-Vence where he lived for seventeen years until his death, is under threat. The land speculation company that owns the house and its ten surrounding acres has plans to install eighteen luxury condos on the property.

The short-term mission of Les Amies de la Maison Baldwin is to protect, acquire, and renovate James Baldwin’s former home in St.-Paul-de-Vence. In the long term, we envision the house as a retreat and residence for artists and writers, in fulfillment of Baldwin’s dream.

Not long ago, the house was categorized as “classé” (historically protected) by L’Architecte des Bâtiments de France, given its standing as a culturally important site. Regardless, the land speculator who owns the property committed an illegal partial demolition of the house, destroying two wings, including Baldwin’s study. We are in the process of petitioning the Ministry of Culture to seize the property on the grounds that historical preservation laws were blatantly violated. In order for this effort to be successful, we need to show broad support from the grassroots, as well as from people of influence.

James Baldwin’s unflinching analysis of tormented dynamics that continue to plague Western societies, combined with his manifold literary gifts, have made him an increasingly inspirational figure both in the United States and throughout the English-speaking world. And he deserves far greater stature in France, both as one of the archetypal American expats—in the same pantheon as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein—and as a distinctly Black writer whose words speak with more currency than ever to the ongoing struggle for equality in our increasingly fractured societies.

Yet, shockingly, no tribute to Baldwin exists anywhere in St. Paul de Vence. No plaque, no statue, no author’s home to visit. This in a village rich with public art projects, galleries, an abundance of sculpture, and a civic pride in their celebration of the arts. In a part of France noted for its social intolerance, one cannot pretend that Baldwin’s race and sexuality, not to mention his ideas, didn’t play a role in his disappearance from the history of St. Paul de Vence. During a recent visit to the village, we raised this issue with everyone we met, and many locals—from artists to elected officials to tourism professionals—expressed feelings of shame and dismay over these circumstances, as well as a keen desire to rectify the situation.

Today, the man and his work represent a powerful bridge between geographies and points of view, not to mention a testament to the universal mission and promise of France at its best. The time is ripe for a Franco-American collaboration that would preserve his longtime home, much of which remains salvageable. This estate is the most logical site for a center devoted to promoting the art and ideas that unite us all—a residence for writers, a gathering venue for thinkers and activists, and a place to pay homage and reflect on the achievement that was James Baldwin’s remarkable life.

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